The Shifting Dynamics of Higher Education in South Africa: Affordability and Inequality

Denise Zinn is the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Learning and Teaching at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa. Interested in understanding the trajectories of inspirational leaders, we share how she came into this position, and the changes she has seen in the education system and South African society since her childhood. 

As a ‘woman of colour’, growing up in South Africa where communities were strictly segregated along imposed ‘racial’[1]lines, I was acutely aware of the impact education has on people’s lives—the variable challenges experienced, the opportunities that were denied, but also the resilience, strength, critical and innovative thinking it engenders. My high school, Livingstone High School in Claremont, Cape Town, was a deeply political space, with teachers who were brilliant political thinkers and activists. They determinedly provided alternative ways to ensure we had a holistic educational experience, that built our full human potential – offering us rich experiences through drama, sport, debates, literature, and varied intellectual stimulation. So, even in the face of legalised segregation, racism and discrimination, I became aware of how one could psychologically/mentally and experientially develop ways of thinking, being, and doing that countered an oppressive state ideology and machinery. I saw and experienced the oppositional power of struggle on many fronts, and the beauty, strength and hope of community activism and solidarities. I became a teacher in the mould of my activist teachers at high school, seeking to develop the full human potential of those I worked with—students, their families and communities. I have infused this intention into various approaches in teaching and leadership development, in pursuit of this particular interest in developing strong leaders and conscious citizens.

 After working for over a decade as a teacher, in 1991 I was offered a scholarship to study at Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I completed my Master’s and Doctoral degrees.  At the end of 1996, I eagerly returned to South Africa to work in the arena of teacher education. Many changes were taking place after the first democratic elections of 1994. It was a time of great opportunity to make some meaningful contribution, but also a very challenging time, when we had to confront the huge inequalities in our educational system: the damage apartheid, and colonialism, had wrought at every level of that system, from early childhood education, the schooling system, to higher education, including teacher education. 

Some of these challenges persist today and are fundamental issues that I have given attention to in my current role at Nelson Mandela University. For example, I believe that the biggest challenges in relation to student access in higher education have been (1) the affordability of higher education for students from poor, working class families, and (2) the huge inequalities in the schooling system, where over 80% of South African schools remain in former ‘locations’[2]set up by the Apartheid regime. These geographical and spatial arrangements, which continue to exist post 1994, and into the first 25 years of a democratic South Africa, fundamentally perpetuate racial segregation. They extend the legacies of inequality and inequity that accompanied this segregated system, which has proven to be very hard to uproot and radically transform, in particular in our schooling system.

The unaffordability of higher education for the poor is what gave rise to the nationwide # Feesmustfall (FMF) student movement and upheavals in higher education, which started in 2015, took on sometimes catastrophic, and definitely catalytic climax in 2016. Even prior to the focus on the constantly increasing fees burden, a new generation of students, many of whom are characterised as the ‘born frees,’[3]turned their attention to the many vestiges of previous apartheid and colonial regimes. For example, in 2015, students at South Africa’s leading higher education institution, the University of Cape Town (UCT), protested the prominence of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, arguing for its removal. This movement (called #Rhodesmustfall) had a ripple effect throughout the higher education system, with radical students and progressive staff at other universities also directing attention to the call for decolonisation of universities. This included the presence of artefacts such as statues, artwork, names of buildings and streets etc, but more significantly, on the content of the curriculum within and across all disciplines. As a result, higher education as public institutions became charged with the twin transformational imperatives of making higher education accessible to the working and lower middle classes, calling for ‘free education’ for the poor, as well as the call for ‘decolonisation’—a demand to re-examine university curricula and systems of administration established in the colonial era.

One of the main questions with respect to ensuring ‘access and success’ has been the question of the language of teaching and learning.  At most universities in South Africa, English has been adopted as the official medium for learning, teaching, research and administration. However, scholars and practitioners have pointed out the critical issue and disadvantage that this creates for many South Africans who speak English as a second or third language. Across the country there are 11 official languages, with English representing the mother tongue for only 9.6% of the total population. The impact of this is on ‘epistemological access’[4]  and the effect on the quality of both learning and teaching in schools, and higher education.  

All of these issues are entangled, and we have sought to address them via various programmes in higher education, but the key and abiding philosophical approach has been our advocacy for a ‘humanising pedagogy’, a concept derived from Paulo Freire’s work and philosophies. We have incorporated this concept into our teaching and learning philosophy at Mandela University, and are actively pursuing the praxis through re-imagining teaching and learning practices as well as engaging in research to explore what this concept means in terms of curriculum development and practices. As a university, our engagement initiatives with the schooling (K-12) system and the community have also started to take on more of this kind of orientation, something our institution calls ‘Hubs of Convergence’. We have asked how do we support communities and struggles for change that draw on the agency and assets that exist in abundance in these spaces or ‘locations’, and where can we be a resource and enabler  rather than being a ‘provider’ offering one-way solutions to community challenges. There are several such initiatives currently underway, which are very promising. I look forward to sharing more about these with you soon.  

We thank Denise Zinn for giving us an insight into the shifting dynamics in the education system both pre- and post- South African apartheid, as well as how these issues continue to shape her current work in higher education. We look forward to learning more about how she is leveraging these efforts to transform education in the K-12 space and will be sharing this with you all in a future entry. 

Paula and Maxie

Meet Denise Zinn:

[1]I place ‘racial’ in quote marks, as I don’t accept the racial categorisations imposed on people here in SA, or elsewhere. The existence of different races is not a scientific fact, but a social construct. However, I acknowledge that racialisation is part of the way society has constructed discriminatory categorisations of people, and it is necessary to refer to these to discuss how different people have been marginalised based on this construct.

[2]A ‘location’ has more than a literal or general meaning in SA: it is a word used to connote a separate group area, specifically created for Black people to live during the Apartheid regime. Black people were further segregated into ‘Africans/Bantu’ people, ‘Coloureds’, and ‘Indians’  and the policies of separate development determined separate group areas or locations for these ‘racial’ subgroups, including separate living areas or townships, schools, clinics and hospitals, places of worship, sportsgrounds, and burial sites, inter alia.  

[3]Born after 1994, into a ‘free’ South Africa

[4]Morrow, W. (2009)  Bounds of democracy: epistemological access in higher education.  Cape Town: HSRC Press